Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The current matriarch of the bluegrass-infused, old-time, and folk-rich branch of the roots music family, Alice Gerrard has been prominent since the 1960s when her early and continually influential recordings with Hazel Dickens significantly shifted the bluegrass world.
Prior to that, and well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice had met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.
While Alice Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently, on approximately a ten-year cycle.
1994’s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004’s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on the new Bittersweet, released on producer Laurie Lewis’ Spruce and Maple imprint, is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.”
Significantly, Bittersweet is comprised entirely of original material; an exceptionally talented interpreter of others’ music, Gerrard has ably demonstrated that she takes things to another level when singing one of her rare compositions. Her catalog is laden with jewels, be they “Agate Hill” or “Calling Me Home” from the previous solo recordings, or “Custom Made Woman Blues” from the Hazel & Alice album; Gerrard cuts to the emotional core.
The thirteen songs included herein are each of great quality, and their execution is equally remarkable. “The Stranger” and the title cut show Gerrard examining the echoes of memory, the passage of time and the passing of history, a theme that can also be found within “Tell Me Their Story.” The unaccompanied opening song, “Lonely Night” establishes the otherworldly qualities much of the album reveals.
The banjo-based “Borderland” possesses a haunting sound and lyrics that could be a few hundred years old; ‘Polly’ even makes an appearance. “Payday at the Mill” is the only slightly more lighthearted companion to Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and her own “Custom Made Woman Blues.” Well known for being a bit maudlin, Gerrard shows her other side on the positively buoyant rebound song “Sun Keep Shining On Me.”
Surrounded by some of the finest acoustic musicians working today—Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Todd Phillips, Rob Ickes, and Tom Rozum—Gerrard’s voice, both literally and figuratively, is given the opportunity to be clearly expressed. One hears the wondrous ache within “Tell Me Their Story,” feels the mystical joy of the blues “Somebody Have Mercy” offers, and the faint hopefulness of “Maybe This Time” and “Unexpected Love.”
Bittersweet is a timeless recording, one that dynamically reinforces Alice Gerrard’s position within the Americana/roots music communities, not only as a ‘pioneering woman of bluegrass’ but as a formidable force as a contemporary songwriter, musician, and singer. Gerrard turned 79 last month; with Bittersweet she acutely delivers the message that she continues to have a great deal to offer, providing songs you can cry to as well as offering hope when it can be most appreciated.